Revisiting Ternate: birthplace of natural selection

The twin cone-shaped peaks of Tidore and Ternate rise abruptly from the deep Molucca Sea and each climbs sharply up to an impressive 1,700m above sea level. As our plane flew in from the west, we were offered a fantastic view of the mountain with its ‘perpetually faint wreaths of smoke’ and then swung around to the East, where the town of Ternate sprawls across the mild slopes at the base of the volcano. Only three weeks before our visit, an earthquake measuring 6.6 on the Richter scale, with an epicentre located 120km to the north, had caused minor damage to infrastructure in the city. Wallace maintained a regional base on this ‘earthquake-tortured island’ for three years, and it was from here that he sent the now-famous ‘Ternate Paper’ titled On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type to Darwin in 1858.

Soon after arriving, we began our search for the house where Wallace had spent ‘many happy days’ while exploring the Eastern archipelago. Initially, our hosts from the local affiliate of Birdlife International pointed us towards an old (but recently renovated) house now being used as a political party branch office. It seems that this house was identified based on oral accounts from local elders of where Wallace had stayed. From the Malay Archipelago, we are provided with the following clues: a floor plan of the house; having thick stone walls up to three feet in height; it being located just above the Portuguese-built fort; the Sultan’s palace being located less than a mile to the Northeast; and it being a 5 minute walk to the beach. None of these clues seem to even remotely fit the house we were shown and we immediately rejected this as a likely candidate.

In their Insecurity, the Portuguese had actually built a number of forts in Ternate. We visited ‘Kalamata’ fort, right on the waterfront facing directly neighbouring Tidore, where Spanish cannons would have once pointed straight back at their Iberian rivals. Located about 10km south of the city centre, this fort however was also quickly discounted. The second fort was ‘Tolokku’, the oldest remaining in ternate, but also on the water front and located North of the city centre. The third Portuguese fort, ‘Gamalono’, is also located north of the Sultan’s palace. The only fort whose location fits Wallace’s description seems to be the ‘Oranje’ fort, which is widely believed to have been built by the Dutch following their invasion of Ternate in 1607. We walked the streets just above this fort and found a number of houses apparently built during the same era as Wallace’s, with stone floors and thick walls up to about 3 feet (and with timber walls above this). We even asked to see inside two likely contenders to see the floor plan, none of which fit the floor plan described in the Malay Archipelago. Much urban development has now taken place in this district and, considering also that the house had been ‘rather ruinous’ even when Wallace stayed there, we concluded sadly that the house had in fact been long bulldozed and no longer exists.


 View of Tidore from Kalamata Fort

All the same, this house-searching exercise was a great excuse to explore the various historical sites of the town, delving into the fascinating 500 year history that this tiny island has bore witness to. The Portuguese first arrived in 1512, shortly after their conquest of Malacca and soon after arranged a treaty with the Sultan (our Tourist Brochure, however, informs us that “Unfortunately, Portuguese betrayed the agreement and killed Sultan Khairun” – such are the Portuguese remembered in Ternate today!). The Sultanate had already grown fabulously wealthy by selling cloves, nutmeg and other luxuries to traders from Malacca and from more remote countries such as India and China. Starting with the Magellen expedition, which traded with the Sultan of Tidore in 1521, Spanish interest in the Moluccas was intense as they established an alliance with Tidore and intermittently controlled Ternate as well. In the Malay Archipelago, Wallace quotes from Sir Francis Drake, who visited Ternate in 1580, at a time when the Portuguese were taking refuge on Tidore following a popular rebellion that followed Sultan Kairuns’ murder.

During the 18th century, Ternate was the headquarters of the VOC (the Dutch East Indies Company) and, following the Dutch destruction of clove plantations elsewhere in the Indies, the sole site of clove production in the world. This monopoly only truly ended after the British takeover of the island during the Napoleonic wars and subsequent expansion of clove cultivation in Zanzibar and the West Indies. Clove plantations are still abundant on the island, although it is primarily kretek cigarette factories in Java that fuel demand rather than global trade – current prices are hovering around 3USD/kg, a far cry from the once famed ‘worth it’s weight in gold’ value (especially with today’s gold prices up to 23,000USD/kg!).

The end result of the singular colonial and pre-colonial history of Ternate, the seismic instability of the region, and the nationalist politics of post-independence Indonesia, is a city where crumbling ruins are strewn amongst rambling kampongs. Probably the most impressive of all the forts in its day, ‘Oranje Fort’ is easily overlooked altogether if approached from the west, where the grounds are littered with rubbish. The interior of the fort is now being used primarily as a ramshackle boarding house for local police families and other government offices. The Sultanate still possesses symbolic power on the island, with a well-maintained keraton and the current Sultan also involving himself in both regional and national politics.


 Old Dutch canons lie amidst the kampongs of Ternate

Sadly, the tumultuous history of the island has resurfaced again in recent years. A full-scale religious war between Christians and Muslims caused social devastation across the Moluccas from 1999-2002, apparently triggered by a minor brawl in Ambon and fuelled by years of religious resentment and displacement of traditional elites from top political jobs in southern Maluku. The conflict was heavily exacerbated by interference from external groups and the poor capacity of security forces to maintain neutrality. By the time a peace deal was struck in 2002, an estimated 5,000 people had been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced. More recently, a tight result in North Maluku’s gubernatorial election in September 2007 led to massive street rallies and violent clashes between supporters of the two opposing candidates. When we visited twelve months later, the dispute was still unresolved. It was therefore a shock to wake up on our last morning in Ternate (September 29) to hear noisy street protests and fiery orations outside our hotel. It turned out that a decision had finally been made and the new governor was to be installed in Ternate that very day, resulting in clashes outside the parliament building (about 100 meters from our hotel). Having been caught in the middle of a political riot in Makassar nine years before, when I was forced to run across a runway to board a plane just before the airport was occupied by a mob, it was with some relief when we made it through the heavy security presence at Ternate airport and boarded our plane back to Manado.

Wed, 2008-11-12 03:46 -- Anonymous (not verified)

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